Tom Cotton's political nightmare: How we know for sure his letter was a failure

Bill Kristol, neocon operative who's wrong about everything, thinks the Iran letter was a brilliant maneuver. Uh-oh

Published March 16, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston)
(AP/Danny Johnston)

For anyone who had any doubt that Sen. Tom Cotton's dumb letter to Iran was anything less than a total tactical failure that backfired spectacularly, the final proof is in: Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard who is famously wrong about everything, has declared it a raging success.

It is not surprising that Kristol played a hand in bringing Cotton's letter to fruition and establishing Cotton's national reputation as a laughingstock. Kristol, who fancies himself a conservative foreign policy intellectual but is mostly just a Republican political operative, likes to take on "projects" in the form of aspiring conservative talent and then prematurely ruin their careers. The list includes Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin and, now, Tom Cotton.

Kristol somehow landed a lead editorial in the latest issue of his own magazine in which he defends Cotton, as well as Bibi Netanyahu and Trey Gowdy, for pushing conservatism forward against the wishes of the weak-willed D.C. Establishment. (The same D.C. Establishment to which Bill Kristol has belonged for several decades, we might add. You know those infamous "Beltway cocktail parties"? Kristol emcees most of them.)

If brow-furrowing were thinking, the Republican establishment would be geniuses. If hand-wringing were prudence, GOP politicians would be exemplars of Aristotelian virtue. If tongue-clucking were eloquence, conservative elites would be orators for the ages.

But of course Trey Gowdy, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Tom Cotton have done more for conservative principles and Republican prospects in the last few weeks than the brow-furrowers, hand-wringers, and tongue-cluckers have done in years.

Let's leave aside Rep. Trey Gowdy for the moment, since he was only included to round out the triumvirate Kristol needed for a trend piece. I am not quite as sure as Kristol that Gowdy, head of the Benghazi(!) committee, is going to help Republican prospects all that much by demanding Hillary Clinton's email server for the next two years, but that's another piece.

Let's roll the tape one more time and look at how much Netanyahu and Cotton have done to serve their mutual interest, which is to sabotage a nuclear deal between the world's great powers and Iran. Both Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress trashing President Obama's foreign policy and Cotton's letter alienated Democratic lawmakers. Democrats and independents who were interested in working with Republicans to demand congressional approval of an Iran deal now aren't so sure that it would be wise for the president to send an accord to the graveyard. Netanyahu's party has fallen behind in polls only days ahead of the Israeli elections; Cotton, only two months into his Senate career, has consigned himself to a Ted Cruz-like role where he'll always earn a good draw at conservative confabs, but he won't ever be an influential legislator.

So what is this good that Netanyahu and Cotton have done for themselves and conservative causes? Apparently they have catapulted the Iranian nuclear negotiations into the news. Into a Discussion!

Who forced the beginning of a serious debate about the full scope and meaning of the administration’s capitulation to Iran? Benjamin Netanyahu. Who stimulated a real discussion of the implications of the administration’s failure to go to Congress for approval of the Iran nuclear deal? Tom Cotton and his 46 colleagues.

Netanyahu and Cotton's respective stunts may have helped draw even more coverage to the Iranian nuclear talks, but the most important diplomatic story of the century wasn't exactly starving for media attention beforehand. Whatever new attention that Netanyahu and Cotton "forced" or "stimulated" has merely shone light on the disingenuousness and incompetence of the opposition. Such forces work much more effectively in the shadows.

Kristol also writes that Netanyahu and Cotton have "done a service" by drawing out the "character of today's left." When Netanyahu and Cotton acted like jerks, liberals called them jerks. What a bunch of jerks those liberals are!

The only part of Kristol's column I can empathize with is its conclusion -- for stylistic purposes. Kristol writes himself into a corner for which the only escape is a clever "kicker," but instead of coming up with something clever, he writes a bunch of nonsense in the rhythm of something clever. Oh, Bill, this happens to me too -- like in EVERY ARTICLE I WRITE. Except this one, because I'm giving you the final word:

As a great American writer put it, “Politics ain’t bean-bag.” Republicans and conservatives spend an awful lot of time playing endless variations and ingenious permutations of bean-bag. But it’s baseball, not bean-bag, that is the American game. It should of course be played cleanly and forthrightly, and according to the rules. But baseball is hardball. So is politics. Maybe it’s time to stop fussing and fretting long enough to learn how to play it.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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